The Katy Play Station A Texas-Sized Playground
When you talk about Texas, everything is big.
Opened in the summer of 2009, the Katy Play Station covers 15,000 square feet and can be found in the city of Katy at Avenue D and Franz Road in Katy City Park. The playground uses as a theme one of the unique features the town is known for—the railroad.
The Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad rumbled through the area in the late 1800s, before Katy was ever known as Katy. In fact, the town got its name from that railroad. The railroad company was often referred to as the “K-T” and the town’s name was derived from that nickname.
Jennifer Jones Archer, the director of parks and recreation for the city of Katy and one of the catalysts to getting the playground project on track and finished, explained, “The name Katy Play Station was given to the play area for many reasons. Katy is an old unique rice farming community developed around the railway system of the late 1800s and early 1900s. The city of Katy prides its heritage on its railroad history so it was fitting to incorporate some sort of train theme into the play area in hopes that the facility would be the hub or ‘station’ for all of Katy’s citizens to play.”
When the playground was new, online reports and blogs were full of praise for the play area.
A Texas-Size Playground
Texas’ biggest playground may not be located in the state’s largest city—Katy comes in around No. 171 population-wise—but it is a suburb of Houston; downtown Katy is located just about 30 miles west of downtown Houston. And yes, here it comes, with 2.24 million people, Houston is the largest city in Texas.
When it comes down to it, though, it’s not the size of Katy Play Station that matters, it’s what it offers to a wide variety of people that counts big.
Katy Play Station is an all-inclusive, accessible playground with features for children (and adults) of all abilities and disabilities, including those in wheelchairs or who use walkers. Jones Archer proudly pointed out that the playground also caters to those who have debilitating hearing and sight restrictions while offering focus points through play panels for children who have learning disabilities and cognitive disabilities such as autism.
Jones Archer explained that there was a real need for something like the Katy Play Station, not just so Katy’s children had a place to play, but so that children of all abilities had a place to play in Katy. She said, “Until this point, the city of Katy offered no services or facilities of this kind nor was there anything remotely recreationally close or within a 30-mile radius.”
The need for something, anything, even remotely similar to an all-inclusive play area was recognized years ago. Jones Archer was hired as the parks and recreation director in April, 2005, the first full-time person in that position for the city.
“Upon being hired, I took an inventory and assessment of the city park and rec facilities and automatically flagged several problem areas concerning ADA accessibility,” Jones Archer said. “I determined that there were no outdoor recreation sites that were inviting or accommodating to those with cognitive or physical disabilities.”
Jones Archer started researching different types of facilities and their impacts on the communities’ varied age groups. An outdoor recreation site and playground seemed to be the best fit for the community’s needs with the aim of targeting the widest age groups and number of people.
Assessing a need and then figuring out how to fill that need could be miles apart economically, especially in a community the size of Katy (pop. 13,913). Jones Archer and others knew the needs but had to figure out how to fund such a project—which ended up being another success story.
“At the time I began as director, the annual operating budget for the entire department was obviously less than what a structure or project of this magnitude would cost,” Jones Archer said. “So I instantly began contacting organizations and corporations seeking help and guidance on a way to get this done. The City of Katy’s mayor at the time (Doyle Callender) quickly jumped on board with me and as a team we agreed that we wouldn’t stop until such a facility was open and running and serving the thousands of families in the Katy area.
Another partnership Jones Archer formed was with a local, nonprofit organization that specifically works with children and families of the multiple impaired. That nonprofit Be An Angel Fund, based in Houston, went to work coordinating the fundraising for the more than half-million dollar project.
The city of Katy contributed $260,000 in materials and labor with the balance of the $527,000 project funded by donations.
Jones Archer explained, “Probably the most unique feature of this project is the fact that, as a municipality, we did something that very rarely has been done. The initial cost of the play equipment, foundation, protective surfacing and an ADA-accessible restroom facility with children and adult changing tables was an estimated $527,000. The city of Katy designated $260,000 to the initial scope of the project. The city would pay for the foundation, protective surfacing and bathroom facility.
“The remaining cost of the playground at roughly $300,000 was presented to the public in the form of a fundraising project. The city of Katy Parks & Recreation Department also paid to fund all marketing campaigns, mailed out print material, printed ads and any additional expenses needed for promotion of the project.”
The balance of the funds needing to be raised came about in a pretty clever way. Jones Archer said all pieces of equipment that were going to make up the playground were broken down into sellable pieces and bound into a “sales catalog” that was distributed to thousands of families, individuals, local companies, corporations, non profits, school districts, grant foundations and local political figures.
A Legacy Of Sorts
Equipment was broken up into individual pieces with pieces ranging from $500 to $15,000. “We marketed the sale of the pieces as an advertising opportunity to corporations and communities,” Jones Archer said. “Those who purchase pieces of equipment could then put their personal or company name on the equipment. For many businesses, this was an incentive that offered them visibility for the life of the playground, plus it allowed the community to see those who were directly involved in the building of the project.”
For example, Vicki Rao, CPA, and Rhonda Walls, PC, “bought” a double slide for the playground with their donation of $2,500. Enterprise Bank donated $4,000 for the Thunderhead Climber. Rhett Butler donated $6,000 to help pay for the curved bridge. The custom train, which cost $75,000, was “bought” by the Katy Rotary Club while the coal car, worth $10,000, was “bought” by Traditions Bank. The Katy Independent School District ponied up $15,000 for the space net. And the list goes on. More than 40 pieces of playground equipment were purchased this way. A variety of companies, schools, local businesses, and individuals contributed to the Katy Play Station.
“Families used this opportunity as a way to remember or honor family members via the equipment,” Jones Archer explained. “We knew that if this project was going to be a success we had to get the community involved from the first step in.”
That they did, right from the outset. Jones Archer said, “We held our first meeting, sort of like a ‘project launching,’ inviting 60 of the community’s key figures to help introduce, launch and get excited about the project. We had several large players going into the first meeting and one of them, Wal Mart, walked into the first meeting, only briefly hearing about the project from myself, with a $10,000 check purchasing the first piece of equipment.”
Katy Play Station Right On Track
From then on, the project was right on track.
“The design of the playground was officially released that night in addition to the first set of sales packets for the equipment,” she continued. “Within the first week we sold about 10 pieces of equipment and the momentum began to grow at a rate faster than we had ever expected.”
A task force was formed to help penetrate the community and get as many people involved and spreading the word as possible. Jones Archer said that between herself and her part-time Parks and Recreation Department community specialist, countless hours were spent educating, increasing awareness of special populations in the community and the need for such a facility as well as fundraising and marketing the Katy Play Station.
The campaign was named, “If we build it, they will come.” Jones Archer appeared on television shows, the project was featured in magazines, she spoke at several community-wide events, hosted fundraisers community-wide and did live news broadcasts from the location to get the word spread and people involved.
Others played a role in varying degrees. Highlighting this is the involvement of the Katy Rotary Club, of which Jones Archer is a member. “Early on, I approached my club for their commitment to this project,” she said. “I knew that this would be a great project to engage them in.” The Katy Rotary was the largest single contributor to the project, dolling out almost $82,000 in contributions as a club.
Katy Schools Rally To Help
Jones Archer also pointed to the Katy Independent School District as “another key contributor in the project.”
She said, “The city of Katy has an amazing working relationship with our school district and District Superintendent Alton Frailey. Mr. Frailey is a fellow Rotarian member as well and after I introduced the project to our Rotary Club group, he approached me and informed me that he would ensure the district would get involved. Nearly every school in our district, almost 50, made some contribution to the playground whether it was through coin drives, bake sales, PTA fundraisers, senior class project contributions, afterschool program fundraisers, etc.
“Working with the school district and having a close relationship with our special education department allowed us to reach so many more families which this project would touch. In having that close relationship, we learned that nearly 6,000 students are enrolled in Katy ISD special education and that Katy ISD is known as a great district for those families needing to enroll their children in the wide array of special education classes. In addition to the amount enrolled in public education, we also worked with grassroots and support groups who accommodate those in the private school sector or home school their children and found that number to be astonishing as well.”
By working with a broad sector of the public, all the hard work, along with others’ help and donations, resulted in a playground the community is excited about and proud of.
Landscape Structures was chosen as the specific vendor to design the play area. Jones Archer said LSI was chosen because of its many amenities and adaptive ADA play modules as well as the “quality of its products and the past history the company has had with the city.”
Those involved with the Katy Play Station from the start “wanted to make this play system accessible for everyone, leaving no one group or type of impairment unaccommodated,” Jones Archer said. “There was great thought and strategy put into the design of the playground. First, we wanted to eliminate any boundaries that would turn away any user, so we had to think from a physical and cognitive perspective, in addition to still making it challenging, entertaining, and educational.”
Thinking Everything Through
The entire structure is ramped extra wide to accommodate two wheelchairs at the same time, plus enough room for a walking adult, in addition to it being fully hand railed and brailed. Accessory clues are given for system changes or upcoming components. Auditory elements are used periodically throughout the structure for those users with attraction to auditory elements or heightened senses. Additional auditory elements were added as soothing sounds for those who benefit from relaxation sensations. Variances in landscaping that had changes in texture to cause auditory stimulation were also used around the play area.
“Landscape Structures does an excellent job of texture changes in certain equipment so we made sure that in certain sections of the system where we wanted to target a certain population, there are several surface changes in textures, color, auditory and skill levels,” the Katy Parks and Recreation director said. “To ensure the variation, several onsite changes were made to maximize each zone to its highest potential.”
Multiple height levels were developed throughout the system to allow those who are wheelchair-bound and may never have experienced height changes before to do so. Easy access was added to the sides of slides and access points so that those children could be lowered onto slides and exit points easily and there still be a means of lowering chairs back down to ground level.
The community’s input was invaluable to the project, Jones Archer said. “Bucket seats were added to the space net at varying heights after a mother expressed that her autistic son loves to climb and sit at different heights,” she said. “Additionally, molded bucket swings were added to the swingsets after that same mother explained that her son loves to swing, but will only do so in a ‘car seat’ type swing because the codling effect allows him to be less frightened and more comforted.”
The structure itself was designed in an elongated fashion to eliminate blind spots in the playground. “When designing a facility encouraging use by those of multiple impairments, we wanted the entire facility to be visible by any angle so parents could keep their children in their sightline from any view of the facility,” Jones Archer said. “Secondly, in doing preliminary research, I found that it wasn’t just children that the facility of this nature would be benefiting, but adults with cognitive impairments, wheelchair-bound parents as well as parents with multiple-impaired children who want to meet up for ‘play dates’ or for support meetings.”
How Long Did It Take?
You’re probably saying to yourself right now, all that planning, design, implementation, fundraising and the actual build must have taken years.
Not so, said Jones Archer. “From the original time of conception/architectural planning to planning to the last dollar needed, fundraising took about a year,” she said. “The actual intake of funds needed to financially complete the park only took a few months. Construction and installation went exceptionally well and took about three months, followed by custom landscaping and hardscaping of the area, done in a very native Texas style.”
While there is plenty of praise and thanks to go around to the large number of people who helped see the Katy Play Station become a reality, former Katy Mayor Doyle Callender said there was one person who was a real catalyst—Jennifer Jones Archer.
“Jennifer was our leader on this park and I congratulate her,” he said. He added, “Most of all I thank the city of Katy mayor and councilmen for their support as well as our local citizens who helped fund the park through donations and came together for a truly magnificent dream to come true.”
You would expect Jones Archer to be pleased with how the Katy Play Station turned out, but it’s obvious she learned several things along the way—things that will stay with her long into the future.
“I knew from the beginning that we were onto something good for our community, but as the numbers tallied in at exactly how many people we were affecting with a project like this and how many people were supporting us and cheering us on, I knew that it went beyond doing just what’s right to doing something that would change and enhance the lives and recreation experiences of thousands in the Katy Area.”
Former Mayor Callender concurred.
“This playground is a wonderful addition to our park system,” Callender, who went on to serve as chairman of Katy’s Parks and Recreation Board, said. “It’s a park for all children. Nothing touches me so deeply as seeing a child with physical limitations enjoying a play park just like every other child with no restrictions, no boundaries, just fun.”
He continued, “We have people from miles around come to our city just for their children to play. I feel all cities should look toward some form of this type of park. The smiles on the children’s faces and the parents make it all worth the extra effort and time and fundraising for this special project. You cannot put a price on a child with a smile from ear to ear.”
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